David R. Henderson  

James Bovard on the Peace Corps

Schools without Classrooms... A Means A...

"The toughest job you'll ever love."

Robert E. White, Peace Corps regional director for Latin America, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1970, "In the early days ... it was like a parachute drop. A Volunteer would be told, 'Here's the bus that you take. Go and look around and get off where you think you can do some good.'" An official report by the government of Honduras concluded in 1968, "The Volunteer appears to be someone with nothing to do; his skills are not utilized and the community doesn't know what he has to offer in the way of help."

Indeed, throughout Latin America, volunteers were sometimes referred to as "vagos" -- Spanish for "vagabonds." A Brazilian development expert concluded in a Peace Corps-commissioned study in 1968, "As economic developers, Volunteers have not had any lasting impact on any community. They are more efficient spokesmen for their interests than ... for the poor." One Latin American government official complained to a Peace Corps auditor in 1968, "The Volunteers I have known recently -- with one exception -- are not helping us at all. They created problems for us."

This is from James Bovard, "The Forgotten Failures of the Peace Corps." The whole thing is worth reading.

Every Peace Corps veteran I've ever run into talks about what a great experience it was, what a growth opportunity it was. My Congessman, Sam Farr, whom I've seen speak a few times, always fits in his Peace Corps experience in Colombia. It was clearly very important to him. Talk to each one a little more and you find out it was about their growth. When you ask what was accomplished for the people they worked with, the answer is typically that they don't know.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Jack writes:

I think this is true in general of volunteering, and not specific to the Peace Corps. I volunteered several types, and though each time I thought it was a great experience, looking back I fear I contributed little. Largely, I think it is because there tends to be little supervision and coordination, and there is a learning curve, as with anything else. Most volunteers are at the beginning of the learning curve, and since they don't stick around for long, it's not worth the time and effort to train them well, supervise them, etc. However, I think volunteers who stick it out can do a lot of good, and I don't wish to seem too negative.

chipotle writes:

Mr. Henderson, what you (and Bovard) say is true.

Nevertheless, it is my impression that--at this point--these people are less harmful on the margin for the U.S. than additional members of the military or investment bankers.

ChacoKevy writes:

My apologies, but a book with that title doesn't sound like I'm going to get a balanced view. Instead, I would recommend this book, written by one of Peace Corps' auditors.


If I can, I'd like to ask you to change your ideas on what Peace Corps does. Your expectation sounds like you want volunteers to be catalysts to deliver people from the bonds of poverty. A lofty and worthy goal, no doubt, but the day-to-day battles we volunteers wage are much simpler. Think along the lines of: "Please wash your hands after going to the bathroom".
"Don't let your cattle use your water supply as a toilet"
Also, and perhaps some might not see the value in this, but many times a Peace Corps volunteer is the only American people in the third world will ever meet. Does it comfort you at all that you have spirited people offering up an alternative of who Americans are from what they see on television?
I could ramble for a while, and indeed I already am, but I would just like to point out that 2 of the 3 goals of the Peace Corps Act of 1961 are simply Public Relations.

Bolivia '03-'05

ChacoKevy writes:

Ack! No comment edit. I do see your link is an article and not a book. I already had Meisner's book in my head on seeing this post.

sourcreamus writes:

How many Peace Corps volunteers does it take to change a lightbulb?
None, Peace Corps volunteers never change anything.

Dain writes:

I recall reading a book called Making Them Like Us, all about the Peace Corps. Notice the possible double meaning in the title, kind of clever.

It was mostly negative, and not from a libertarian POV.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

funny because it's true.

Sam Roberts writes:

Have you seen Catchafire, a new startup that matches volunteers with organisations for pro bono work based on their actual skills?

Pave Low John writes:

Well, it wouldn't be a real Peace Corps thread without some cheap shots thrown at you-know-who, now would it?

Because, god forbid we use 'volunteers' to help foreign governments deal with their problems using security assistance funding, building partner capacity initiatives, medical management exercises, etc... That would be totally crazy.

In fact, if you think about it, there is always some organization that leaps into action whenever there is a natural catastrophe anywhere in the world. Who provided almost instant food, water and medical treatment in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake in 2010 and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004? Who quickly reopened the Port-au-Prince Airport to allow international aid to be airlifted? Who provided flood relief to South Africa and Mozambique during the mass floods of 1999 (Operation Atlas Response)?

Because it couldn't possibly have been the U.S. military, they are way too busy randomly murdering women and children in the Middle East and water-boarding innocent religious scholars at Gitmo to do anything useful. Must have been an organization composed of people with pure hearts and beautiful souls.

It must have been the Peace Corps. Good job, Peace Corps! You guys are awesome. When they slash our military budget to the bone, I pray they give you the billions of dollars in DoD cuts so you can spread warmth and sunshine all over the planet. That would be, like, totally groovy.

Just don't spend it all on blunts and tie-dyed t-shirts, okay?

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